Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 075. Scaredy Cat by Will Shindler (October 2005)

I’ll be nice first. Scaredy Cat has one major advantage over The Twilight Kingdom – it’s mercifully shorter. In fact, with some of the four parts at a mere 17 minutes, this is one of the shorter efforts in the main range for a while, and certainly blessed with a more competent, if not exactly outstanding, production level than Will Shindler’s first story (although boy, does the pompous choir in the background make everyone sound like they’re trying too hard). It’s marginally slower to lose your attention.

Shindler builds a reasonable sense of unease around the travellers’ introduction to Endarra. The scientists’ experiments with primates marry Ghost-Light-esque musing on australopithecine behaviour with symbolism pilfered from the Book of Genesis (they’re trying to find the nature of evil, for Christ’s sake, it could hardly be more obvious). In fact, the Bible is probably the single biggest influence on the goings-on here (the story’s opening is sort of nicked from the Gospel according to John). The paradise world of the Garden of Eden, disrupted and violated by plague and corruption, is a hackneyed but nonetheless potent image. The TARDIS’ own gardens are here depicted in a fun little opening, as we get to see Eight as a highly enthusiastic horticulturalist listing all the rare species he cultivates; the parallels with Endarra are fairly clear – the TARDIS as its own Eden-like space, the Doctor as god of his own little world. So the box of theme is nicely ticked.

Into this paradise we need a threat, however, or the story’s running time won’t be sustained, and it’s on the front of “plot” that Scaredy Cat falls down. As the story goes on, we get bogged down in tales of the Yaranaa, a rather watered-down effort to keep the listeners hooked. The repeated chanting of “scaredy cat” by both girl and primates starts off okay, but gets irritating after about the third appearance and comes across as much more CBBC horror than the terror it seems to want to inspire (there was something similarly deflated about the Grand Guignol-style horror in The Twilight Kingdom, from which he repeats the idea of a humanoid creature “inhabiting” a natural landmark of some kind, there a cave, here a planet). Eunis Flood spends most of the first half of the story alone in the darkness talking to himself, and although some of his individual lines are quite nice it’s hardly gripping listening (and he’s so *obviously* evil that it’s just frustrating to listen to endless time-biding). There’s little sense the writer has thought about how to portray threats growing out of his story organically – see “Guy Randomly Decides To Throw Charley in a Shed Because It’s Time For A Cliff-hanger” for more details. The original colonists are ineffably dull and insipid. We get a bog-standard “it’s futile to change history” moment. Yawn. And don’t even get me started on Part Four, where everything becomes a sodden quagmire of bollocks. Eunis Flood’s mind binds itself to the morphogenetic field. Whoop-di-doo. Galayana is the water and the air, which isn’t beautiful in Shindler’s hands, it just sounds silly. The planet defeats the threat of man. In our stories, we’ve all been there and done that.

Paul McGann doesn’t give a great performance here, always a sure sign that he’s not very enthused by his material (I’m sure he fluffs a few lines in some takes, too). For a Doctor who once criticised humans as “always noticing patterns in things that aren’t there”, he wouldn’t be my first choice to subscribe to the largely laughable notion of Morphic Resonance. His best moment is the speech in Part One (“The most evil species in the universe were created by a pitiless cripple, and his own frustration and bitterness were reflected by his creations. Another race of killers chose to reject their humanity in pursuit of survival. And so it goes, invariably, each and every time it comes down to a nexus point. A moment of decision. A split second where the balance of good and evil is tipped the wrong way. I have spent most of my life hunting those moments down”) although even that really only serves to highlight that this is nowhere near the same league as Genesis of the Daleks and Spare Parts, the two stories of such mythic resonance to which he refers. C’rizz at least gets the storyline going, keen to see an utterly unspoiled world (once again he’s aligned with the notion of “healing” when it comes to TARDIS life), and to save the plagued colonists. His standoff with Flood is OK, too, and at least good evidence of a writer handing C’rizz a major denouement all to himself, but Charley is given a terrible story arc (one of the story’s worst sins alongside being boring is side-lining a brilliant actor like India Fisher), left behind by C’rizz and the Doctor and mostly asking uninteresting questions of Niah or being locked in with Flood.

This isn’t a particularly interesting review, mostly because I’m not reviewing a particularly interesting story. Scaredy Cat suffers from similar problems to The Twilight Kingdom, or indeed The Dark Flame – an ill-thought-through, nebulous sense of generic Ancient Evil, unimpressive supporting characters spouting silly names and uninspiring technobabble, a dull villain, and no particularly strong performances. It’s a black hole sucking flair from everything else. It’s the pulpy embodiment of Rupert Sheldrake’s notion of Morphic Resonance – woolly, full of unlikely coincidences and generalisations, and all told roundly debunked. Alas, it’s the kind of Doctor Who story that makes you want to slump in your chair and bang your fists against your temples and say, “I’m an hour and thirteen minutes closer to death, why have I been listening to this and losing my brain cells, not reading Dostoyevsky or feeding ducks or going for a jog?” Despite being nearly an hour shorter than The Twilight Kingdom, I think it’s actually duller. Stay away.

Other things:
“How do things begin? With a word, an action, a decision? In the beginning, there was – what? There must have been something. And what was that something? Did it come pre-loaded with good, and evil, and all points in-between? You see, starting points are important, great levellers, because no one has an advantage, because no one knows what’s going to happen next.”
“Nothing is more the child of art than a garden.”/“Doctor!”/“Sir Walter Scott, actually.”
“This is extraordinary; so calm, so peaceful!”/“It’s like Bavaria!”
They couldn’t even get a little girl in to play Galayana? Sigh.
“Self-deception is a wonderful thing. Principles, I feel, should be seen and not heard.”
“You overreach yourself, Doctor.” A nice line, given the whole of this story is, like Marlowe’s great figures, about the nature of overweening. It forms one heck of a nice contrast with LIVE 34, which was about how much heroes *need* to get stuck in; this story is about how not tampering with unknown forces and being sure to leave them well alone is the wiser course of action.
“Blue tits!”/“Is this a Gallifreyan form of abuse?”
“The planet itself was raped.” I really hate this line.
To give Scaredy Cat its due, I never particular felt the veracity of one of the main criticisms it gets – which is that it’s far too much like a Divergent Universe story for one that’s supposed to be in “our” universe. But before Mr Shindler takes heart from this comment, I feel the need to point out that this is mostly because The Twilight Kingdom and another story I could mention were so insipidly like bog-standard “our” universe stories. In other words, they’re just not very good whatever universe they’re set in.

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